Hour 12. Relational Aesthetics and the Readymade.


Let us continue our look into some of the big ideas in modern and contemporary art. As you continue your study of art, you will come across countless more of these concepts. As you learn more you will expand a kind of mental archive, an interpretive framework that you will use to understand the art that you encounter in dope art galleries like the ICA. This hour, we will look at two ideas and the art movements attached to them: Relational Aesthetics and the readymade.


Relational Aesthetics.

You may have noticed that contemporary art is not simply painting and sculptures. You will also encounter art that is performative, in which people use their bodies to fulfill the meaning of the art, or in which people’s bodies are the art. Artists who follow the frame of relational aesthetics sometimes use performance, but it is a bit different than the performativity of say, dance. Or, at least, it is driven by a very particular idea. Let’s start with this.


Term created by curator Nicholas Bourriaud in the 1990s to describe the tendency to make art based on, or inspired by, human relations and their social context. -Tate


You might think that this notion would encompass all art, since no art object can be made outside of a human social context. But let’s look at the way that the founder of relational aesthetics, Nicholas Bourriaud, defines it:


A set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space. -Bourriaud


Let’s looks at an example of relational aesthetics:



Yeah. So. Not a painting or a sculpture.


(Note, that Lauren Hoptman, the curator in the video, speaks a lot about the significance of Tiravanija’s soup kitchen happening in the context of the museum. This is a crucial point that we will unfold later.)


The question in a work like this is simply, “where does the art happen exactly?” It’s a question that seems quite sensible on further reflection. When I look at something like a painting, there is a sense in which it’s existence as art is completed by my contemplation of it. Without an observer, without someone to engage with it, the painting itself would be inert, having no meaning aside from speculations about the intentions of the artist, and even those speculations require an observer. Relational aesthetics opens the space, says, hey, viewer, you are a part of this and we recognize it, now let’s think about the beauty or terror or fun of the interaction between you and what is normally taken as the art. .


Read this article on relational aesthetics.

“The conversation is the medium and the message; the moment of shared communication is the realization of the artwork.”

Relational aesthetics is kind of amazing because it literally changes the location of the art.

Okay, peep our fav Hennessy Youngman’s sweet satirical explanation of relational aesthetics.



Lastly, here is a pretty succinct wiki article on the subject.



A video explaining further the notion of the medium being the message.


Also, a selection from the book that started it all.


The Readymade.

Let’s take a step a bit further back in time and have a look at another idea, the readymade.

Remember Duchamp? The guy with the urinal? Yeah, he came up with this. Let’s think about this as we check these videos.





“How to redefine the question of what is it to be an artist.” Ann Temkin is going hard in this video. Her main point, which we should not forget, is that the space of art is, and has always been an ideological space in which certain kinds of ideas have appeared. And sometimes people come along and challenge those ideas. Duchamp challenged the idea that you go the museum to see, literally, in its full ocular meaning, art. No. He wanted the gallery to be a space where you went to think about what it is the art is suppose to be about in the first place, and in fact what an artist is. All the art needs to be a work of art is the idea, Temkin says. This is the foundation of contemporary art. “He got people to question what otherwise they would take for granted without a second thought.”


Now, you can already hear the angry men of youtube saying that this, and also relational aesthetics, is dumb and it’s just these pretenders pulling the wool over everybody’s eyes, man. But I think that by now, we have arrived at the thing that the “this is all nonsense” crowd is really saying, which is, simply, “I don’t want to think any deeper than what I can see in pretty pictures.”